Friday, December 30, 2016

Eyewitness to the attack on Pearl Harbor

Sketch of attack on Pearl Harbor from USS Swan
Gift of Mrs. Buren B. Wilkie through the Naval War College Foundation

Seaman Second Class Blaine N. Seeley was serving in the seaplane tender USS Swan (AVP-7) on the morning of 7 December 1941. This drawing, which Seeley likely produced from memory after the attack was over, shows battleship row shortly after the raid began. USS West Virginia (BB-48) can be seen listing in the water just to the right of center. In the far right, USS Arizona (BB-39) burns after a bomb ignited her forward magazines. A damaged Japanese aircraft trails smoke above Arizona while another flies over USS Oklahoma (BB-37) to the left of center.

Swan was in dry dock when the air raid sirens sounded and had no hope of getting underway. Her captain, Lieutenant Commander Finley Eliott Hall, ordered the crew to man the antiaircraft guns and open fire. Fortunately for small auxiliary craft like Swan, the Japanese concentrated their firepower against the battleships. Swan received no damage during the attack and claimed one enemy aircraft destroyed by her 3-inch battery. Hall wrote in his after action report:

The entire crew showed exceptional calmness and courage throughout the action. The two officers on board when the initial action began showed exceptionally keen judgement in diagnosing and controlling the situation.

USS Swan (AVP-7) pictured in 1943 at Mare Island Naval Shipyard
Courtesy of NavSource Online

Following Pearl Harbor, Hall received an early promotion to commander for meritorious combat service.  He subsequently earned a posthumous Silver Star Medal for heroism as the Executive Officer of USS Liscome Bay (CVE-56) during combat operations off Makin Island in November 1943.

Rob Doane
Curator, Naval War College Museum

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Remembering Pearl Harbor

To mark the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Naval War College Museum opened a small exhibit today highlighting the art and artifacts in our collection that relate to the events of December 7, 1941. Among the pieces on display, we were fortunate to receive an incredibly detailed diorama of USS Arizona (BB 39) on loan from its builder, Mr. Robert D. Bracci. The diorama is entitled “Last Liberty” and depicts a poignant scene on the evening of December 6, 1941, as many of Arizona’s crew prepare to go ashore for what will turn out to be their final evening of rest and relaxation. The 1/48 scale vignette features 97 individual figures and uses compressed depth to force the perspective and place focus on the individual sailors. Mr. Bracci carved the ship from two blocks of foam and cut the planks from basswood sheets. He utilized several methods to give his creation added realism, such as making bellbottoms for the sailors’ trousers out of epoxy! Other notable details include the Vought OS2U Kingfisher aircraft and the crew working beneath it to set up a canvas awning for religious services on Sunday morning (which were never held).

“Last Liberty” is a unique addition to this exhibit and we are grateful to Mr. Bracci for making it available to us. It will be on display through June 1, 2017.

Rob DoaneCurator, Naval War College Museum

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Shrapnel from USS Arizona

CAPT Luksovsky holding the metal
fragment that lodged in Quarters H
Last week we were delighted to receive a visit from CAPT Kyle Luksovsky, a Supply Corps officer stationed at Pearl Harbor, who dropped by to see an artifact that has very special meaning to him. He and his wife Katrina live in Quarters H on Ford Island which is located just a few hundred yards from the USS Arizona Memorial. Shortly after they moved to Hawaii in 2013, Katrina took a historical tour of nearby Hickam Field and became interested in finding out who lived in their house on 7 December 1941. Research revealed that it was CAPT Errol Willet, a Navy dentist, and his wife and two children. Katrina went on to identify the families that lived in the 18 other homes in their neighborhood and had signs produced for display outside each house that list the occupants of 1941. But she didn’t stop there – over the next year, Katrina tracked down survivors of the attack who were children during the war, organized a reunion for them in February 2014, and published a book containing their eyewitness accounts of the raid.

The Luksovsky’s interest in the attack on Pearl Harbor also stems from the fact that Quarters H was hit by metal shrapnel, some of which embedded in the side of the house and remained there for years. One of those metal fragments, believed to be from USS Arizona, was donated to the Naval War College Museum in 2002. CAPT Lukovsky dropped by the museum to see it while he was in town, and we were thrilled to show it to somebody who truly appreciates its significance. Thank you to CAPT and Mrs. Lukovsky for the important work you have done helping to keep history alive at Pearl Harbor!

Metal fragment believed to be from USS Arizona (BB 39)

Rob Doane
Curator, Naval War College Museum

Monday, August 15, 2016

An Olympian Takes the Helm at the Naval War College

Rear Admiral Harris Laning

If you’ve been watching the Olympics this week, you may have seen Ginny Thrasher of the United States win the first gold medal of the 2016 games while competing in the ten-meter air rifle event. Did you know that the Naval War College has a special connection with the Olympic rifle competition? Admiral Harris Laning graduated from the NWC in 1922 and served on the staff from 1923-24 before ascending to the Presidency in 1930. Laning was a proponent of wargaming and emphasized the study of tactics during his term. Ten years before he first arrived in Newport, Lieutenant Commander Laning achieved a different honor when he was named captain of the U.S. rifle team for the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden.

Lieutenant Harris Laning (center in white uniform) with the 1907 Navy rifle team

At that time, responsibility for organizing the U.S. team lay with the National Rifle Association. In March, the NRA requested that the Navy assign Laning to be the team captain, probably due to the fact that he had been captain of the Navy rifle team in 1907. Tryouts for the team took place at the USMC Rifle Range in Winthrop, Maryland in May. The organizers planned to send an all-military team to Stockholm, so they invited the Army, Navy, Marines, and National Guard to send their best shooters. From that pool, the top eight made the team:

Captain Allan Briggs, Army
Captain Cornelius Burdette, West Virginia NG
Captain Fred Hird, Iowa NG
Lieutenant Carl Osburn, Navy
Ensign Harold Bartlett, Navy
Sergeant Harry Adams, Army
Sergeant John Jackson, Iowa NG
Hospital Steward Warren Sprout, Navy

1912 U.S. Olympic rifle team

Once the team had been selected and turned over to Laning, his job was to form the eight individual shooters into a team. For that, he took them to Annapolis for two weeks of practice at the Naval Academy’s rifle range. While each man was an expert shot, doing well in the team competition would require them to work together by sharing information about wind and light conditions on the range before shooting. Laning drilled them in the correct procedures until they performed to his satisfaction. The team then traveled to New York and boarded SS Finland which had been chartered to transport the entire U.S. Olympic team to Sweden. Some of them may have met a fellow Olympian, Second Lieutenant George S. Patton, who was competing in the modern pentathlon.

Most of the athletes found time to train during the six-day crossing, and the rifle team was no exception. While they could not conduct live fire on the passenger ship, Laning set up a practice range for the team so they could perfect their shooting positions and practice focusing on the target. The extra training served them well. Despite being the last team to arrive at the rifle range just two days before the competition, the United States won the gold medal in the team match, beating out Great Britain and Sweden for the top spot.

Following his term as President of the Naval War College, Laning went on to serve many more tours of duty at sea and ashore before retiring from the Navy in 1937. He died in 1941 and is buried at the Naval Academy.

Rob Doane
Curator, Naval War College Museum

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Happier Times: USS Indianapolis before World War II

USS Indianapolis (CA 35) is a ship whose name will be familiar to any student of World War II. After delivering the atomic bomb to the island of Tinian on 26 July 1945, she set a course for Leyte Gulf to join with the rest of the U.S. fleet in preparing for the invasion of Japan. Just after midnight on 30 July, the Japanese submarine I-58 spotted Indianapolis and fired six torpedoes. One hit the bow and the other struck amidships next to the fuel tank and magazine. Within minutes, an explosion ripped the ship apart. Of the 900 men who made it into the water, only 317 were rescued after a five-day ordeal that subjected them to exposure, starvation, thirst, and shark attacks.

It is unfortunate that this tragic end overshadows other events from earlier in the ship’s fourteen-year operational history. Prior to World War II, Indianapolis carried out an important diplomatic duty when she transported President Roosevelt to the 1936 Pan-American Conference in Buenos Aires. Captain Henry Kent Hewitt assumed command of Indianapolis in March of that year. The cruiser sailed to Panama for tactical exercises before returning to the east coast where she operated through the fall. On 18 November, Roosevelt boarded Indianapolis in Charleston, SC, following installation of a special elevator for the President’s wheelchair. USS Chester (CA 27) served as an escort and sailed in the lead during the voyage south to prevent any possibility of the President’s ship being involved in a collision.

Arthur Beaumont, 1936
Gift of Mrs. Floride H. Hewitt to the Naval War College Foundation
NWCM 1973.06.01

Given Roosevelt’s strong naval background (he served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy from 1913-1920), it is not surprising that he took a strong interest in the ship’s activities. Hewitt recalled one such instance as the ship set out from Charleston:

Commander Badger reported the ship ready for getting under way and the lines singled up. Just as we let go, and the ship began to move ahead, two bells were struck. Later, as we left the harbor and steadied on our southerly course, the president commented to me, "Skipper, I noted that you were right on the bell." He knew nautical terminology and liked to be treated as a flag officer. Throughout the cruise, he had charts—with courses plotted—parallel rulers, and dividers in his admiral's cabin, and he was always furnished with the 8 a.m., noon, and 8 p.m. positions, which he plotted and checked.

LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin over Rio de Janeiro
Undated photograph

Indianapolis ran on a tight schedule and maintained an average speed of 25 knots in order to ensure that Roosevelt reached the conference on time. They had two notable encounters along the way – one with the German airship Graf Zeppelin on its way home from Brazil, and another with a German cruiser whose crew manned the rails and fired a twenty-one gun salute. Both events, though peaceful, underscored Germany’s growing interest in South America.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt speaking before King Neptune’s court
during the crossing the line ceremony on USS Indianapolis
Photograph courtesy of FDR Library

On 24 November, Indianapolis observed the traditional “crossing the line” ceremonies as the ship passed over the equator. King Neptune’s court arrived in full regalia and proceeded to put the ships’ pollywogs – those who were crossing the equator for the first time - through the usual initiation rituals. President Roosevelt, himself a pollywog, was spared from the harsh treatment that accompanied these ceremonies, but he insisted on appearing before King Neptune in keeping with the spirit of the day. His only punishment was to explain to the crew over the ship’s public address system why he had lost the states of Vermont and Maine in the recent presidential election.

Indianapolis reached the harbor of Rio de Janeiro the day after Thanksgiving. Somewhat to Hewitt’s embarrassment, rough seas had washed away patches of the ship’s paint causing Indianapolis to enter the harbor with bare spots on her hull. If Roosevelt was displeased, he did not mention it. They continued on to Buenos Aires and arrived two days early for the conference, a testament to the ship and its crew. Hewitt was promoted to rear admiral in 1939 and commanded naval forces that supported Allied landings in the Mediterranean Theater during World War II. He served as an advisor at the Naval War College during his tenure as Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe, after the war. The College honored him in 1976 by naming Hewitt Hall in his honor.

Rob Doane,
Curator, Naval War College Museum

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Crossing the Line

1825 engraving by the English artist George Cruikshank depicting a typical crossing the line ceremony in the Royal Navy

The museums’ latest exhibit is Crossing the Line: Unofficial Traditions of the U.S. Navy. Nobody knows exactly when the crossing the line ceremony started, but the first documented instances can be found in the accounts of French sailors from the early sixteenth century. As European powers became interested in overseas exploration, their ships crossed the equator with increasing regularity. A number of traditions sprang up to mark the first time a sailor crossed over 0° latitude. These early ceremonies were comprised chiefly of two parts: a religious ceremony of thanksgiving, and an initiation that marked the transformation of inexperienced sailors into trusted crew members. The participants were put on trial, both in the literal sense during the ceremony, and in the figurative sense because the ritual was partially a test of their strength and resolve. By the mid-sixteenth century, sailors had begun to regard it as an ancient right that they baptize those who had not been over the equator before, and they did so by blacking themselves and dressing up in costumes. Many at that time believed that anyone of another race who crossed the equator would become an African. The ceremony not only served as an initiation ritual, it also reflected Europeans’ curiosity about the rest of the world and the superstitions they held about it.

King Neptune and his court in a crossing the line ceremony from 1953

The elements of the ceremony have undergone some modification over time and vary a little between nations, but a few components tie them all together. The sailors to be initiated are referred to as Pollywogs while the experienced crew members who plan and conduct the ceremony are known as Shellbacks. A group of Shellbacks, usually the highest ranking enlisted sailors, dress up as King Neptune and his assistants. Once the ship has crossed the equator, the Pollywogs receive a summons to appear before King Neptune’s court. There they are accused of various farcical misdeeds and are given punishments that must be endured in order to attain the title of Shellback. These punishments were originally quite rough and included beatings, throwing the victims overboard, and dragging them through the water. As late as the mid-twentieth century, Pollywogs could still find themselves covered in garbage and rotten food or being poked with electrified pieces of metal. Over time, the hazing aspects of the ritual have been toned down with greater emphasis placed on building camaraderie among the crew and celebrating a rite of passage shared by sailors all over the world.

Shellback certificate earned by CAPT H. Kent Hewitt while in command of USS Indianapolis (CA 35). President Franklin Roosevelt was on board during this cruise to attend the Pan-American Conference in Buenos Aires.
Naval War College Museum Collection

Having passed the test, Pollywogs receive certificates that announce their initiation into the Ancient Order of Shellbacks or the Ancient Order of the Deep. The next time they cross the equator, they will be the ones putting their inexperienced shipmates to the test. Other landmarks now have similar rituals to accompany their passage including the Arctic Circle, Antarctic Circle, International Date Line, Panama Canal, and Cape Horn.

Rob Doane
Curator, Naval War College Museum

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Who helped raise the flag on Mt. Suribachi?

Last week, a special committee convened by the Marine Corps reignited an ongoing debate about the identities of the men pictured in the iconic WWII photograph of the flag raising on Mt. Suribachi. The committee met to consider evidence that suggested one of the men in the photo had been misidentified. After examining other film and photographs taken that day, the committee concluded that the second man from the left was Private First Class Harold Schultz, and not Pharmacist’s Mate Second Class John Bradley as previously believed. Schultz did take part in the first flag raising that day, but he died in 1995 having never spoken publicly about participating in the more famous second flag raising that was immortalized by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal.
Photograph by Joe Rosenthal with PFC Harold Schultz highlighted
Image courtesy of USA Today

These developments illustrate how difficult it can be for historians to reconstruct the past. Even with movie cameras and photographers present to document one of the most iconic moments of the twentieth century, we have not managed to establish with 100% certainty who was present at the top of Mt. Suribachi on 23 February 1945.
Plaster model of Iwo Jima memorial by Felix de Weldon

Sculptor Felix de Weldon used Rosenthal’s photograph as the basis for the United States Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, VA.  De Weldon produced 36 plaster studies of the six men raising the flag before finishing the full size monument. Fortunately for the Naval War College, he worked in Newport and donated three of the studies to the Museum in 1973. One is currently on display outside Spruance Auditorium. The nine and a half years he spent working on the monument left de Weldon feeling a profound connection with the men whose images he had worked so hard to capture in bronze. At the dedication for the memorial in 1954, he told the audience that

To put my true feelings into words would be beyond my own powers of expression. I am sure it is not necessary to “tell it to the Marines.” Work on this statue has been almost my entire life these past years and now that it is finished, I am afraid that I shall feel lonely and a little lost. A sculptor does not work with words. His medium is bronze or stone and through this medium I have expressed my true feelings for the Corps and for those who died fighting with the Marines since 1775.

Rob Doane
Curator, Naval War College Museum